Category Archives: Play in public realm

Here we go again: No Risk, No Play

I’d forgotten, it was some time ago, but a series of tweets I saw reminded me that I had responded to an invitation to write an article for LA+ Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture, published by the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. They wanted an article about – you guessed it! – ‘Risk and Play’. 

Truth be told,  I find it increasingly difficult to write anything on the subject, this because I find myself in a seemingly perpetual cycle of repetition such that anything I write on the subject feels over-worked, over-used.    No matter, I accepted the invitation in a spirit of self-entrapment – by committing myself, stuff would need to be written.  

The article below is as it appears in the journal save that I have reinserted twenty two words which, for whatever reason, did not make the final edit. (If you’re the sort of person who enjoys a quiz – a Christmas Quiz! – you may enjoy having a punt at which words have been reinserted.)

Speaking of Christmas, I wish readers greetings of the season, and more especially, a 2018 of peace and goodwill. On that latter wish, well, don’t hold your breath, but do what you can. Others are having a bash at it too.

Children and teenagers want and need to take risks. They do this ‘naturally’ in the sense that, left to their own devices, they seek out and create encounters that carry degrees of risk or uncertainty. This process of risk-taking necessarily entails exploration, discovery, and learning – about oneself, one’s capabilities, and the wider world. To take a risk is to assert one’s autonomy and power of agency. It is to learn by doing that actions have consequences. It is an aspect of moral education. Play and risk-taking are creative acts. A perspective to bear in mind as we briefly survey the scene.

Here’s a conventional playground: fenced, rubber or synthetic ‘safety’ surface, inert, uniform, dead. Inside the fence are metal swings, slides, and climbing frames. Climbing, swinging, and sliding are the only actions the equipment formally allows. But there are always renegades who will use equipment ‘wrongly:’ climbing on to the roof of play equipment that was not ‘meant’ for climbing; being upside down on a swing or slide. It’s simple really: children are exercising their sense of agency, their autonomy, their creative capacity to bend even seemingly resistant environments to their own purposes and interests. And the risks they take are generated by their choices, their imaginations, their creativity. Continue reading

Democratic space

It’s not an accident that we attach the adjective ‘democratic’ to either describe actual  public spaces, or to mark our aspirations for them.  Indeed, there’s a flotilla of warm words – ‘shared’, ‘communal’, ‘inclusive’, ‘accessible’ – that together act as a collective nod towards the features and atmosphere we believe a truly public, ‘public space’ should evoke.

In the background, no doubt, lurk images and ideas drawn from the Agora of classical Greece and the Athenian City-State, though its democracy was, by our proclaimed modern democratic standards, somewhat lacking in reach, in inclusivity.  Basically, if you were an Athenian bloke you were in the club; if not, then not.

It is however useful to notice that whilst by our ‘modern’ standards fifth century BCE Athenian democracy does not pass muster, its limitations were an overt, explicit, ‘in-your-face’ articulation of the very fabric of the political, social and economic structure of that society.  By way of contrast, visiting and sitting around in what can broadly be described as ‘public spaces’, I’m struck by just how difficult it is to create democratic spaces, how difficult it is to counter the forces and  influences that limit fulfilment of our democratic and inclusive aspirations.   These can include, often in potent negative mix:  forms of land ownership; demographics; socio-economic class; race, age and gender; forms of decision-making;  confused objectives; inappropriate design; mad, thought-neutering timescales; and the allure of fad and fashion . Continue reading

Play Streets. Popup playgrounds. Good. But…

Call it ‘recession’, or call it ‘austerity’. We know what is meant. The public purse is depleted. If we are to shift, we must shift for ourselves. This forms part of the wider context of two relatively new phenomena, at least in so far as they have taken recent institutional shape: Play Streets; and pop-up adventure playgrounds.

Play Streets, in the UK at least, involve local residents seeking permission to close a street to cars for ‘x’ number of hours per week. As far as I know, closure is only allowed for a few hours. They rely heavily on the voluntary efforts of local parents, to supervise and provide general oversight of the play street session. After the allotted ‘play time’ is over, the street reverts back to its usual status and function.

Pop-up adventure playgrounds can, in principle, ‘pop-up’ in any space, public or private. An unloved, or underused park or open space perhaps; or a shop unit whose retail function has been felled by that recession mentioned earlier.

There is something beguiling about both phenomena, not simply because of their play function, but because they appear as cousins to the ideas and ideologies informing ‘meanwhile places’, reclaiming the street, and ‘pop up’ this and that – restaurants, bars, raves, etc; and temporary sort-of-squatted artist studios/living quarters that put to use empty buildings for which the market can find no immediate use. Continue reading